Dr. Ben Drati, superintendent of the Santa Monica Malibu United School District (SMMUSD) kicked off a town hall Zoom meeting for Malibu last week with three detailed options for re-opening local schools for the new school year. The lengthy meeting covered preschool, elementary schools and secondary schools.

“We learned a lot from our experiences [operating during the pandemic] last spring, and a lot of that has accumulated into what we’re looking at here,” he said.

Dr. Ben Drati

Dr. Ben Drati

Option A calls for in-school classes with in-person instruction five days a week, followed by a week of distance learning at home.

Option B calls for splitting classes in half. Each half of the class would attend school in person two days per week and stay home for distance learning three days a week.

Option C is 100 percent distance learning.

On Tuesday afternoon, a letter from Drati to parents stated the district was planning to move forward on Option C.

“Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District staff will recommend that the School Board announce a plan to reopen with distance learning, following recent state and local health recommendations and a surge in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County,” Drati wrote, adding, “SMMUSD staff want to reopen in-person as soon as possible and had been preparing to recommend an in-person option (Model B, the hybrid model that includes both in-person and distance learning). However, the steady upsurge in coronavirus cases in our region, combined with the advice of public health experts, has led us to the conclusion that distance learning is the most prudent model to start the 2020-21 school year.”

At the town hall Zoom meeting last week, Drati explained some of the practical considerations in reopening school during the COVID-19 threat. “Some staff can’t return because of pre-existing conditions,” which creates problems if the teacher is highly specialized in something like calculus. In those cases, the district is looking at delivering content to students via software from companies like APEX Learning.

To help facilitate distance learning, there will be designated distance model teachers, especially those who can’t be on campus because of pre-existing conditions. Distance learning teachers haven’t been identified yet.

The district says it already has learning platforms available districtwide, like Google Classroom, Zoom and Seesaw for Schools.

Jacqueline Mora, PhD, reviewed the general proposed daily schedules for each of the three options for elementary and secondary students and said students will be assessed in the fall “to determine where they are, and to provide targeted support, extensions and interventions” where needed. 

Plans for when in-person learning resumes

SMMUSD outlined in detail the cleaning procedures for schools, should they eventually reopen during the coronavirus emergency. Carey Upton, SMMUSD chief operations officer, said they were working with an industrial hygienist on proper cleaning methods, signage and individual plans for each classroom, including air flow and circulation, and will be using virus-killing commercial sprays.

Director of Student Services Susan Bronstein, RN, said all students coming to school would be asked screening questions, given a visual inspection and a touchless temperature check. She recommended that all students get flu shots. Everyone over the age of eight will be required to wear masks and LA County guidelines on social distancing and hand washing would be followed.

SMMUSD was also planning to redeploy staff to areas where students can be supervised while their parents are still at work, and for students to get in-person help. Spaces would be provided in Malibu where students can do their work, most likely at the library and the Boys & Girls Club.

Drati said the district intends to provide hotspots and computers to students who need them—students just have to reach out and let the school district know.

In addition, there will be staggered recess times, fewer students allowed on buses, prepackaged meals, meals served outside whenever possible, limited use of playground equipment and no field trips.

Despite being given three options for the school opening, it appeared more than likely the SMMUSD Board of Education would vote to enact distance learning when it meets on Thursday, July 16.

LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told school officials last week, “Every single school district at this point needs to have plans in place to continue distance learning for 100 percent of the time, given where our [infection and hospitalization] numbers are. We would be irresponsible if we didn’t say to you that you have to have the backup plan ready.”

 “This was not an easy decision. As we continuously reviewed guidelines and recommendations from the state, county health officials, Los Angeles County Office of Education and considered the recent surge in cases and hospitalizations in LA County, we changed our approach and direction this week from hybrid to distance learning,” Drati wrote.

“Reopening with distance learning provides us the opportunity to fully implement these recommendations and prepare for the return of students and staff as quickly and safely as possible,” he added.

An online parent survey was conducted by SMMUSD beginning after the Town Hall, from July 7 to 12, to see which option they preferred. The school board will discuss the results at their July 16 regular meeting. One of the primary goals of the survey was to gather data about potential student attendance.

The results of a previous parent and staff survey showed that parent and staff responses were similar—an indication that the two groups are aligned, according to survey analyst Sam Koshy.

Town hall meeting videos can be viewed at: www.smmusd.org/school2020-21.

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